Johnny Blades | Radio New Zealand | 27 May 2017
“There is good mining, and there is bad mining, and I’ve witnessed a lot of bad mining,” said the Australian man to the villagers of Noipe in Solomon Islands’ Temotu province. Given the anger among the local community about bauxite mining, the conversation was remarkably cordial.
He stood at a roadblock near their village, speaking to a handful of local adults, a teacher and a couple of dozens kids from Noipe’s primary school.
“We work really hard with the community,” said the man, “we have agreements with communities for good mining. We do everything we can to protect the land, the villages, the people.
“We provide education for the children, we provide training for the adults. Can I show you some photos?” he said, turning to get something from his nearby vehicle.
“Excuse me,” responded the teacher. “We don’t need photos…. we don’t need mining and we don’t need prospecting, that’s all. Our land is our heritage, our future for young generations.”
“Okay, alright, thank you very much” said the Australian politely, before leaving.
The villagers posted a video of the exchange, saying they do not agree with mining prospecting proceeding on their land.
Bauxite interests on Nende
The Australian man in the video is Mark Gwynne, the executive chairman of Pacific Bauxite.
This Australian company owns 50 percent of AU Capital Mining, the entity which in 2015 won a license to prospect for bauxite at Nende in Temotu.
Temotu is the most remote of Solomon Islands’ provinces. Ships only general visit once a fortnight, and the twice weekly scheduled flights from Honiara are often cancelled as there’s little money to have the grass on Temotu’s airstrip cut.
Yet there was a hotly anticipated visit to Temotu this month by Mr Gwynne and company.
Pacific Bauxite, formerly named Iron Mountain Mining, is coming in for increased criticism in Temotu over the way in which it gained a business licence to conduct its prospecting at Nende.
The license was granted soon after the Temotu provincial assembly voted in a new premier, David Maina, to replace Nelson Omar in late March.
Shortly in advance of this, there was a flurry of activity on the Australian stock exchange as people bought up shares in Pacific Bauxite.
Mr Omar said the basis for moves to oust him was to approve the business license.
“(But) the consent from the resource owners, the land owners, how it was conducted was not done in accordance with existing legislations which govern the mining and logging acts,” he explained.
On its website, Pacific Bauxite insists it has consulted with locals.
“The Company is extensively engaged with the local community and is ensuring that all stakeholders are made fully aware of current and future activities regarding the Project.”
But its assertion that “meetings held with local parties to date have been extremely positive and much enthusiasm has been generated by the recent phase of exploration” contradicts comments from the local communities themselves.
In reality, there’s a groundswell of concern about the mining among the community on Temotu’s main island of Nende (Santa Cruz).
The concern stems partly from the feeling that local people weren’t adequately consulted in advance about the prospecting by either the company or government.
It’s also about fear of the potential environmental impacts of mining.
Grace Kava, who is from the west side of Temotu’s capital Lata, said most locals did not approve of bauxite mining due to fear it would devastate the soil.
“Because they already knew something like the bauxite mining up in Rennell (Rennell and Bellona) province up the road, getting into a big disaster. They think the same thing will happen to them.”
Ben Menivi, who is from Graciosa Bay, said mining posed a big threat to the water source from which the community gets much of its drinking water.
“So that’s my concern, that if the bauxite continues, they come and continue the work, they might destroy some of the top soils at the top of the mountain where the water source comes from.”
Another local, Henry Kapu, explained that because Temotu was prone to natural disasters and sea level rise, people from smaller islands in the group flocked to Nende, the province’s main island, when they needed support, for food or other materials.
This support system, he explained, would be at stake once bauxite mining had disrupted then island.
“We will lose all our arable land, crops, ancestral land boundaries and this will further exacerbate land disputes,” he said, warning that this could lead to more ethnic tensions in Solomon Islands.
Beu comments controversial
But the Temotu provincial executive is firmly supportive of the project.
A provincial minister, and former Temotu Premier, Father Brown Beu said they had considered the environmental impacts, and had consulted with landowners who were largely in favour.
“The people who are against this prospecting are all working class, and they’re all in town (Honiara),” said Mr Beu.
“They should be assisting in some form, but they are not. Let me tell you that these people as far as we in Temotu are concerned, we’re not listening to them, full stop.”
He claimed that as a remote and under-developed province, Temotu needed the kind of investment the bauxite project will bring.
“Unlike other investors who are invested in Temotu Province, they (the mining company) will shortly after this be able to provide medical facilities that we will never – I don’t know, centuries to come – never have.
“Isn’t that something that’s worth looking forward to?” he said.
“BB is our past parliamentarian. He says we are backwards in terms of development. Has he done any thing better for our province since his leadership to date?” commented one Temotu man, Desmond Nimepo.
When several personnel from the mining company turned up to Temotu in the past week, roadblocks were mounted by landowners to stop them moving around.
Mr Beu, who confirmed the miners were under police protection while in Lata, has been criticised by a former governor general of Solomon Islands.
Sir John Ini Lapli, speaking on behalf of Nende people, said Mr Beu’s comments were way off the mark, and that the provincial executive had not taken the impacts of mining into account.
According to Sir John, the issue had created tension in Temotu.
He indicated that the upper levels of government and the ministry of mines were essentially likely to proceed with the mining, no matter how people felt.
“You know they said in this law that certain feet below the ground it is not people’s land it is government’s so that is where the government is sort of proceeding with this.
“They came with some agent unknown, they didn’t come through the procedure and so they were able to pay some people to sign accepting this proposal they signed up and that is how they locked these landowners,” said Sir John.
The provincial government’s involvement in this process echoes the murky experience around logging operations on Temotu’s Vanikoro Island.
These operations, which have proved deeply divisive among the local community, are run by a Malaysian company, Galego Logging, whose local partner is Vanikoro Lumber Limited.
VLL’s chief executive is Temotu’s deputy premier, Ezekiel Tamoa.
According to a Vanikoro native, Edward Pae, Mr Tamoa promised that the developer would come and build infrastructure like roads, clinics, wharves, even an airstrip.
“But up to now, they only cleared the land… There’s totally no infrastructure developments on the land at the moment,” said Mr Pae.
“After five years, there’s a lot of environmental damages done: rivers crossed, tabu sites illegally entered, and most of the water sources that villages or communities around Vanikoro used to use have been badly damaged. And now the people on the ground in Vanikoro are really affected.”
Mr Tamoa disagreed, saying an airstrip and roads were being developed.
He also denied there was any conflict of interest in him being the head of a company which got a license to log from the government he is part of.
“Overall I think most of the landowners are ok with these developments. They stand to benefit from it.”
Mr Tamoa disputed claims that in Vainkoro there had been no benefits from the logging, saying an airstrip and roads are being developed.
He insisted only a few locals had reservations about logging, but opposition to the project has already boiled over into unrest last year in the form of sabtoage of logging machinery, and has the potential to do so again.
Numerous moves are underway to press the provincial government to halt bauxite mining activities, including a public petition.
Furthermore, a paralegal officer and concerned landowner Ruddy Oti has been collecting affidavits signed by Nende landowners who feel they were misled by the mining company when it sought to get landowner consent.
Mr Oti said that earlier some individual landowners had been approached by the company and gave their consent.
“After OceansWatch (environmental NGO) did some awareness in Nende, there was some sense of realisation among these landowners who had previously given their consent, then they eventually agreed to have their consent revoked.”
A Nende local, Titus Godfrey, said developers coming to Temotu tended not to follow the full process for gaining consent, knowing some local people were interested in quick gains.
“I mean, people gave their signature because the guy who came, he came in December, when he came in at Lata they said if you want to survey our places to do the drilling you can pay two hundred dollars or something like that.”
It’s a theme echoed by Father Colton Medobu, an Anglican priest in Noole village.
“The situation like here is people wait for opportunities of money: money, money, money… And when people talk about these things, people resort to advances of big money. That’s why these people get caught up and use this as the basis for working with the people. And sometimes it extends to bribing people without explaining to people what they’re asked to do.”
He said that local people wanted development and were not strictly against resource extractive operators.
But he said there had to be proper consultation and a proper strategy to avoid potential displacement and negative health and environmental consequences from these developments.
While the provincial government appears unlikely to answer the petition’s call to revoke the mining company’s business license, it is under increasing pressure to respond to the community’s concerns.
Yet Brown Beu said that until the prospecting finished, it was premature to stop the project.
“Then, we’ll be able to ascertain as to whether there is enough minerals in the soil for mining later on,” he explained.
“And that of course depends on the people. Once the reports have come out and the people basically ‘no we don’t want mining’ then that’s it, it’s finished.”
This may not be the case – once a Surface Access Agreement is signed, there is most likely little way to stop the mining other than through the courts at the Development Consent stage.
However out of the current venting on Temotu has come an elevated level of public discourse about mining and logging.
Raising awareness about these areas was the aim of NGO Oceans Watch.
The co-director of Oceans Watch Solomon Islands, Chris Bone, said there had been a lack of awareness about not only the impacts of logging and mining, but also about what the better options were.
Of those options, eco-tourism is an area that Temotu has huge potential in.
“The place is absolutely gorgeous. It’s a very, very special and very treasured place, and one of the last places in the Pacific that has this wonderful primary rainforest,” he said.
For now, Temotu’s leadership and the national government are being urged to be decisive about community concerns over the mining issue.
Sir John Ini Lapli and others have warned that frustrations among landowners and tribal groups could escalate to violence if nothing is done.